The 1-2-3s of Japanese — a how-to guide for beginners

Whether you are researching a new persona of the Japanese persuasion or just want to attend a Japanese-themed event in proper attire, you need clothes.   And being that your “kimono” from Victoria’s Secret or your old karate “gi” just won’t cut it, you need to make something new.   Japanese garb may seem complicated and daunting to the eye, but in fact it is rather simple.   With that in mind, I humbly present this article.

The first factors that must usually be determined when making any new garb are:   size, shape, and time period.   The beauty of beginning Japanese garb is that these need not be taken into consideration.   Standard sizes prevail.   Garments are not sized to fit the individual; they are sized to fit the fabric width.   Unless you are larger than 64″ in circumference, these clothes will fit you (and if you are larger, adjustments are easy).   Breadth was equated with social importance, so everyone wanted to look wide.   There was no such thing as garments fitting close to the body until much later in history (the 18th century to be exact).   Shape?   There was none.   All garments are made from rectangular pieces sewn together.   As for time period, all ages wore different styles, but one garment unified them all:   the kosode.

The kosode is a simple, short-sleeved garment that eventually developed into the modern kimono.   It got its start back in the 10th century as underwear.   Under all those layers of exquisitely dyed silk, Heian noblewomen wore a single white kosode.   Men of Heian also wore kosode under their court garb.   With the new military regime in the Kamakura period (1185-1334) came a revolt against decadence, extravagance, everything that the Heian courtiers represented.   This can be seen clearly in the change from wearing twenty layers of padded silks, to one layer of unadorned white.   But this austerity would not last forever.   In the Muromachi period (1334-1573) colour came to be worn again in heavy brocades.   Layers also came back into fashion, though not to the extent of the Heian garments.   Women would wear heavily brocaded kosode over their heads, tied around their hips and as a type of long coat over their plainer under-kosode.   In the Momoyama period (1573-1600), patterns were made on kosode with gold foil, paint, paste- and stitch-resist, tie-dye, and embroidery.   Decadence was back.   And through all those centuries, the kosode remained.

Kosode is also unisex.   Men in every period wore kosode either by itself or under their more elaborate robes.   If you must chose one garment for 10th through 16th centuries and from commoner to emperor, kosode fits the bill perfectly.

When you are making your first set of garb, it should be comfortable, it should be durable, and it should be period-correct.   Making garb that you will not wear after your first event is a waste of your precious time and energy.   So make something you can wear, no matter what period you portray and no matter what rank you are, and make it well enough to last forever.   Extant kosode have survived from the Heian period.   There’s no reason yours can’t last a millennia too.

Fabric

One might assume that the only accurate fabric of the time was silk.   Not true! Common people made their kosode out of hemp, ramie, and linen.   Cotton and wool were not known in Japan until the very late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when foreign merchants brought them.   If you had cotton, you would have had to have been very, very rich.   If the Shogun had no cotton, you can be sure that your persona didn’t either!

If you cannot find affordable bast fibres (linen, hemp or ramie) and silk is out of the question, try to find cotton/linen blends.   At the very least, use coarse weaves of cotton.   Non-silk fibers should not be smooth.   The technology simply did not exist.

However do not rule out the possibility of using real silk because you think it is outrageously expensive! Some lesser weaves of silk (habotai and silk taffeta, for example) can be purchased for $4 to $6 a yard and will last much better than cotton and look and feel better too.   My kosode are made out of fuji broadcloth and cost a grand total of $35 in fabric.   My uchigi (the many layers of Heian garb) cost about $40 lined and $25 unlined a piece.

There are some silks that were not used in Period.   Silk noil, although it is commonly called “raw silk” is not really raw silk (if you CAN find real raw silk, buy as much as you can afford…   and call me!).   Silk noil is spun and woven from the refuse left after the silk cocoons have been reeled.   It is the scrap of the silk-making process.   Not only would a noble person (even a Kamakura bushi) never be caught dead in such inferior silk waste, I have never seen any period reference to this kind of silk.   The scrap from the silk reeling process was used to pad winter garments.   It was not spun to make cloth.

Similarly, dupioni and shantung (those pretty silks with all the slubs in them) were also not used by the Japanese in period.   The irregular slubs that we find desirable today would have looked like flaws to them.   Spun silk with so many obvious slubs would have been thrown away or used as padding rather than worn as clothing.   Luckily, these silks today are more expensive than the smooth, period-correct kinds.   Another reason to wear the real thing!

Real raw silk is silk that still has its serin.   Serin is the gummy substance that keeps silk worm cocoons together.   Serin is usually removed from reeled silk by pounding the fabric or washing it with certain chemicals.   In period, some silk was left raw on purpose.   This silk (called susushi in the Heian period) was much less pliant than its serin-less cousin, glossed silk.   The result was that the silk stood away from the skin.   Heian courtiers favoured this type of silk for summer clothing because of this property.   It was much cooler than the glossed silk that would stick to your skin in the humid Heian-kyo summer.

Please steer away from rayon (even when blended with linen or silk), taffeta (the non-silk kind), and all polyesters (including satin-looks).   These fabrics may appear to resemble silk, but they will not wear well.   Polyester will leave you cold in the winter and stifling in the summer.   Also, satins are far too shiny for even noble Japanese to wear.   And rayon, though it may look the part, will not last.   It doesn’t wash well and it has all the bad properties of a polyester.   Sometimes it costs MORE than cheaper weaves of silk.   Please avoid these fabrics.   Your clothing will last longer and be more comfortable if you do.

Prints should be avoided as well.   Even though late-period Japanese garments were often printed, modern prints look strange when made into kosode.   Modern tapestry brocades and upholstery fabric will make you look like your wearing window treatments, not Japanese clothing (they also have a backing that itches and irritates the skin).   Even most modern Japanese printed fabrics are wrong for period use.   The motifs in vogue today are much smaller than those that were popular in the medieval period.   Unless you buy imported Japanese fabrics made specifically for re-enactment or find a print you saw in a period Japanese illustration, avoid prints.

Yardage

Now that you know what fabric to buy, you need to know how much.   These yardages are based on the measurements of extant kosode.   To make the kosode, you’ll need 5.25 yards of 50″ wide material or 6 yds of 36″.

Cutting

Cutting the patterns pieces for kosode is very simple.   You don’t even need a pattern.   Fabric in Japan is sold in narrow widths.   All garment pieces are either a full or half width.   To make kosode, start by cutting your fabric to these widths before cutting the individual pattern pieces.   It will make it much easier.   The standard width of kosode is 16.5 inches.

               

Cut two pieces 30″ long.   These are the sleeves (sode).   Cut two more pieces 108″ long.   This is the body (migoro).   There are no seams across the shoulders.   The rest of the pieces are half-widths (8″ not 16.5″). Cut two lengths 44″ long. These are the front overlap (okumi).   Cut one piece 54″ long. This is the collar (eri).   This is the standard formula for all kimono-like garments.

Construction

To put the pieces together, start with migoro (the body).   Fold them in half.   Mark the mid-point of the pieces (54″ from either end).   Sew the two pieces together lengthwise from the edge to the center point.   The sewn part will be the back of the garment and the unsewn part, the front.   If you are sewing raw edges together, use french seams.

Next, mark the center point on the length of the sleeves (15″) and match that center point to the center point of the migoro.   Sew the sleeve to the migoro 6″ on each side of the center point.

Fold the garment in half along the center point.   Starting three inches from where you stopped attaching the sleeve, sew the front migoro to the back on both left and right.

Next, sew the sleeve bottoms together.   This is also a good place to employ french seams.

Make a fist and measure around the widest part.   This is how big your sleeve opening needs to be.   Add an inch or two to this measurement.   Sew up the front of the sleeve from the bottom to this measurement away from the top.   The back of the sleeve should not be closed nor sewn to the body.

Next, attach your front overlaps (okumi).   Align the strips with the bottom of the migoro in front and sew until you run out of migoro (the illustration only shows one side).

The next step is attaching the collar.   You will need one last measurement.   Stand in front of the mirror with a ruler held horizontally in front of your neck.

Measure how wide your neck is on the ruler.   Add an inch.   Mark half this measurement on either side of the center back seam of the garment.   Cut a slight curve (as shown at left) between those two measurements.   This curve should be no deeper than a T-shirt back neck opening.   Find the horizontal center of the collar piece and attach it to the center back seam.   Sew the collar to the migoro with a 5/8″ to 1″ seam allowance.   Curve around the collar cut-out and stop when you get to the okumi in front.

For best results, the next step should be basted or at least pinned on a mannequin.   Pull the collar piece so that it is taut.   Angle it so that it tapers toward the unsewn edge of the okumi.   Make sure the collar and okumi both lay flat against the mannequin.   Sew along the one edge.

Next, roll hem the raw okumi edges.   When that is done, take the kosode to your ironing board.   Set your iron on “wool” and no steam.   Fold the unsewn edge over one-third.   Press.   Fold another third and press.   This should line up with the stitch line where the collar attaches to the migoro.   Whipstitch or blind stitch the collar down.   Tuck the short edges inside and blind stitch.

Hem the bottom and any other raw edges and you are finished!

Hakama

For nagabakama, 7 yards of 60″ fabric is needed (for regular hakama, shorten the legs to ankle length).

Cutting hakama is just as easy.   Standard width is 47 cm (18.5″).   Cut four pieces full width and 210 cm (83″) long.   This is two front (mae) pieces and two back (ushiro).   Cut two more full width pieces 186 cm (73″) a piece.   These are gores.   The remaining length (~455 cm (179″)) is himo or the waist sash.

Construction is very similar to harem pants.   Attach the front piece and back piece at one side.   Attach one gore between them.   You should now have a tube.   Do the same to the other pieces and sew the two “tubes” together at the crotch.   Attach the himo and roll hem the legs.

Resources

My web page – www.reconstructinghistory.com/japanese/

Compleat Anachronist pamphlet #65 – A Japanese Miscellany by A.J.   Bryant

Rupert Gibbon & Spider – lots of inexpensive undyed silk, dyes, etc.   (800) 442-0455 www.silkconnection.com

Thai Silks – all kinds of silks (800) 722-SILK www.thaisilks.com


© 1998, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.